1998 will be looked back upon as a banner year in professional sports, with dynasties continuing to assert their dominance, records being broken and unlikely heroes rising to prominence. Sentimentalists were no doubt pleased as John Elway finally capped an illustrious NFL career by leading the Denver Broncos to Super Bowl victory. Michael Jordan, in perhaps his final year in the NBA, displayed once again why he is the finest hardcourt player of all time in leading the Chicago Bulls to a grueling championship win over the Utah Jazz. France, meanwhile, much to the chagrin of soccer fans all over the globe (myself included), went on a remarkable run in winning the World Cup over a shell-shocked Brazil. And the New York Yankees were virtually unstoppable in amassing the greatest number of wins ever and storming to World Series glory. Baseball and non-baseball fans alike were also fascinated by the spectacular McGwire/Sosa race to break the most famous individual record in sport, the single-season home run record that had stood since 1961. In addition, the winter Olympics were held in Nagano, Japan and Canada, in what seems to be par for the course, garnered international notoriety in the form of snowboarder Ross "I smoked but didn't inhale" Rebagliati, who was temporarily stripped of his gold medal.
However, one unique 1998 sporting event overwhelmingly shines through in terms of sheer drama, athletic prowess and entertainment value (at least in my mind): the scintillating ballhockey victory by the Thai Stix over Team Vietnam in the inaugural Saigon Summit, held from December 4th through 7th. While the end result was certainly positive, things didn't exactly start out that way. With only three minutes remaining to departure from Don Muang airport, captain/coach Richard Meiklejohn was more than moderately dismayed that key players Tom Hilboldt, Graham Mattison and Keith Johnston were nowhere to be seen. The three proceeded to literally board the plane "on the fly", claiming they were all busy closing multi-million baht business deals (not a likely story). Upon arrival in Saigon, the Stix were greeted at the airport by throngs of devoted fans and well-wishers from around the globe, as well as by gracious Team Vietnam captain and host, Philippe Lavallee. Philippe had organised for a team bus to be on hand. The Stix and their fans/groupies proceeded to board the bus, the "Mystery Machine", and were promptly on their way to the hotel.
The night before a major championship, the vast majority of disciplined athletes (Dennis Rodman excluded) follow a routine which normally includes relaxing, getting plenty of rest and preparing themselves mentally for the upcoming event. The Thai Stix, however, have adopted a unique training regimen that discards this conventional wisdom- the objective is to show up on game day in the worst physical condition possible due to the previous evening's festivities, since this represents the penultimate test of an athlete's physical and mental fortitude. Needless to day, virtually all members of the squad were seen carousing until the wee hours. These antics were tempered somewhat by the strict curfew imposed by captain Meiklejohn (4.45am), which only a handful (8 of 11) of players ended up missing (by several hours). Commented fearless leader Meiklejohn, "we've played with our backs to the wall on previous occasions, I have to admit, but the ragtag bunch of cadavers that staggered into the hotel lobby had me fairly worried about our on-court prospects."
It was indeed a weary bunch that slowly climbed aboard the Mystery Machine. Star defenceman Bill Randall, who has been known to deliver rousing Vince Lombardi-like pregame speeches to his teammates, sounded distinctly like baritone Wolfman Jack in verbalising his thoughts (slurred). Fortunately, the team came equipped with a star-studded lineup of top physicians, whose main task was to thoroughly rehydrate the walking wounded. Game one between the two squads was played at 11am under a searing sun near downtown Saigon. Although feeling queasy and weak-kneed, the Stix arrived at the venue of choice looking snazzy, attired in fiery red uniforms provided by Adidas, official equipment supplier to the German national soccer team and the Thai Stix (insert Marnie plug here). Once on the court, however, the Stix played like a team possessed.
Led by the inspirational Meiklejohn and his partner in crime on the attack, the high-intensity Phil Utsch, the Stix jumped to an early 2-0 lead. This lead was extended to 4-0 in the dying moments of the first period thanks to the truly mesmerising stickhandling skills of Shane Gunther. With brutal hangovers now merely a distant memory, the team turned up the heat in the second period and the floodgates promptly opened. Swarming around the Team Vietnam net like bees to honey, the Stix peppered their goaltender with, in the immortal words of Danny Gallivan, "cannonading" blasts from all angles. The aging (gracefully) but fiercely competitive Tom Hilboldt looked like a young Bobby Orr, pinching in from the blue line and wreaking havoc around the Vietnam goalmouth. Several Saigon journalists who witnessed (with a look of bemused puzzlement) this hockey bonanza, believed to be the first international invitational tournament ever held in Vietnam, remarked: "we have no idea what the object of this inane Canadian sport is, but that Hilboldt guy can sure play- he got game!" (loose translation).
After a hard-fought 15 minutes of action, the second period concluded with the score Thai Stix- 7, Team Vietnam- 0. Hoping that the previous night's antics followed by two periods of all-out hockey had left the Stix spent, Team Vietnam came out with renewed vigour in the third. However, the rock-solid Stix defensive corps proved to be insurmountable, as the tireless work ethic of Graham Mattison and his supremely confident partner at the back, Dan McKay, erected a veritable Great Wall of China around netminder Scott Murray. Murray was also stellar between the pipes in making a number of fine acrobatic saves. In fact, hockey insiders were choking back tears in noting that Murray brought them back to the glory days of Terry Sawchuk, as he played without a mask and with minimal equipment. A solid team effort, an impressive result- final score: Thai Stix- 9, Team Vietnam- 0.
With the Saigon Summit scheduled as a three-game series, Team Vietnam realised they had their work cut out for them in needing to win the next two games. The cunning Philippe Lavallee (aka "Dr. Evil"), a renowned master strategist and part-owner of Saigon's only evil petting zoo, plotted a truly dastardly ploy to ensure victory- to encourage the always-ravenous Stix to load up on lunch, thereby ensuring that a bloated and weary squad would take to the court for the afternoon games. Captain Meiklejohn, despite his own hunger pangs which led to highly questionable behaviour (three pasta dishes and numerous spring rolls within a 12-minute timeframe), managed to overcome this serious threat by diverting the team's attention to linemate Utsch, who was holding an impromptu poolside poetry reading. The sheer eloquence of Utsch (who has also been known to spontaneously break into cello concertos on occasion) so captured the imagination of both teams that most players missed lunch altogether.
When the ball was dropped for the second game at 2.30pm sharp, Team Vietnam appeared to have undergone a radical transformation. The starting goaltender had been replaced by a more agile netminder who possessed lightning reflexes. In addition, several sizeable new recruits appeared completely unannounced. Real intensity and fierce determination was also evident in the glaring eyes of the starting lineup as they listened to the national anthems being played. Things really appeared to take a dramatic turn for the worse for Thailand's heroes as they marched into the Stix zone soon after the opening face-off, the effort culminating in a booming slapshot that found the back of the net- Team Vietnam- 1, Thai Stix, 0. Although slightly dazed by this quick start, the Stix managed to regroup and regained their legendary composure. With helpful comments being yelled by their faithful fans in attendance, including insightful tips such as "shoot!", "pass!", "go!" and "score!", the Stix rebounded with a flurry of goals. The dynamic forward line of John Stevens and Keith Johnston were particularly lethal, setting up a number of highlight-reel goals. The team proceeded to put on a Howie Meeker-like hockey clinic in a dazzling second period, the period ending Thai Stix- 8, Team Vietnam- 1.
The tally after two periods was even more remarkable given the fact that the Stix had played the entire game without an integral component of their impenetrable defence, Bill Randall. Instant replays showed that Randall appeared to be viciously struck in game one by a wayward twig on the court, opening a nasty 1millimetre cut on his ankle. Under International Invitational Ballhockey Regulations (IIBR), any player suffering from a cut that bleeds, no matter how insignificant or laughable it may be, is unable to continue representing his team in the tournament. As a result, a battle-worn, nicked and slightly bloody Randall was forced to tend to his gash (some observers called it a paper cut) on the sidelines. With a comfortable lead and victory in the tournament well in hand, Meiklejohn admirably instructed his players to display class and style by not running up the score in the third period. However, two plays by Stix members that would certainly not qualify for any sportsmanship awards proved again that today's athletes are not the best of listeners (identity of players in question withheld to safeguard their reputations).
In any case, a spirited third period of hockey ensued, with a number of good chances occurring at both ends. Although the final score of: Thai Stix- 14, Team Vietnam- 1, would indicate a lopsided victory, it certainly did not come easy. A comprehensive team effort, smart hockey and outstanding execution were the hallmarks of success as the Stix took the coveted title. Glowing after his team's truly impressive performance, which some hockey historians compared to the domination displayed by the Tretiak-led Soviet Union team in the '81 Canada Cup, Meiklejohn astutely pointed to the key driver that spurred his squad to victory: "The curfew, without a shadow of a doubt. I initially thought that 4.45am was a little stringent for the boys, but a strong minority managed to obey it. Given today's resounding showing, which even I did not anticipate, I may be more lenient in the next international invitational and extend the curfew to 6 or so." And so it goes- Bangkok's very own Thai Stix have set a lofty standard which they will be hard-pressed to live up to in '99. An exclusive international tournament is being organised to take place in Thailand during the first portion of this year. Keep your ear to the ground for further details. All donations to the Thai Stix should be sent to MEEI (Meiklejohn Embezzlement Enterprises International).
The Thai Stix are: Richard "Reg Dunlop/El Cuervo" Meiklejohn; Phil "Bad Dawg" Utsch (aka "P-You"); Shane "Peaches" Gunther; John "Danger" Stevens; Keith "Raging Bull" Johnston; Graham "Smiley" Mattison; Tom "Howitzer" Hilboldt (aka "Fountain of Youth Tommy"); Dan "Top Flite" McKay; Bill "Radar" Randall (aka "Red Bull", "Bull Durham", "Ryder", "Seve", "the EmBillisher"); Scott "Money" Murray; Derrick Bartel. Conspicuous by their absence from this tournament was the infamous "3 Amigos" line, comprised of John "Il Duce" Casella, Kelly "Sling Blade" Cailles, and Steve "Darth" Bater. Ballhockey takes place most Thursdays at 8.30pm at the British Club. Anyone interested in chasing around a tiny orange ball with a piece of lumber in this unforgiving climate is welcome to join us.